Practicing the Art of Courage

A martial arts sensei said, "You are always practicing something. The question is - What are you practicing?"

In Henry David Thoreau's Walden, written during his year in a one-room cabin, is this evocative quote: "The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." He was talking about all the possessions we buy that end up owning us, keeping us awake at night. Amen to that.

Now, let's substitute the word "practice" for "thing."

The cost of a practice is the amount of what I will call life that must be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

There is a direct link between one's practices and results. In my work with leaders and their teams, the practice that is often missing is courage. This missing piece costs leaders the most, and when it is present, it makes the greatest difference.

While we recognize courage in heroic deeds, courage may be failing you where it counts most - in day-to-day interactions with the people who are central to your success and happiness.


Courageous acts are fueled by strong emotions, whether played out in the global media or in a meeting room. The problem is that many are primarily driven by fear.

How many times have you told someone what you thought he or she wanted to hear, rather than what you were really thinking? Painted a false, rosy version of reality, glossing over problems or pretending they simply didn't exist? Tossed out the ceremonial first lie?

The desire to keep our jobs, our good standing with our boss and colleagues overrides the impulse to disclose that, in our view, the latest plan presented by management is flawed.

After all, everyone has witnessed a kind of violence--a lost promotion, raise, or place at the table--visited on those who've spoken their hearts and minds, and it is painful and raw.

You know how it goes. Someone speaks the truth out loud, in the presence of leaders, and tension fills the room. Finally, the leader speaks solemnly, as if to a carrier of dengue fever. "I'm aware of these concerns, John (Jane). We've got it covered."

Translated: "What part of 'team player' did you not understand?!"

Why put ourselves on the firing line if there is a less risky, less painful way to get through a challenging situation?

So what do we do? We practice withholding what we really think and feel which costs us a lot. Meetings produce more nothing than something. Ideas die without a funeral or proper burial. Conclusions are reached at the point when everyone stops thinking, which often produces outcomes that are short of brilliant. Communication is primarily from the leader to everyone else. We avoid sharing the realities of our everyday work because is it not a career-enhancing move.

And this is a shame because our first thoughts, unfiltered, uncensored, are usually on to something, yet all too often the courage to capture and voice them fails us.


Emile Chartier wrote, "Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it's the only one you have."

The practice that must take center stage today is radical transparency. And to practice this effectively, we need to find our courage.

What gets talked about in a company, how it gets talked about, and who gets invited to the conversation, determines what is going to happen and what is NOT going to happen. Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want to know the truth. They encourage those they lead to paint the whole picture, even if it's not what they wish it to be. Because only then can we put our best efforts forward to fix what needs fixing.

The first frontier is finding our own courage. In London I was privileged to help a company kick off the introduction of Fierce Conversations to their leaders in Europe.

The first thing the attendees saw when they walked in was a poster with the question, "What are our mokitas?" (a Papua New Guinea word for that which everyone knows and no one will speak of). As they walked down the hall towards the meeting room, there were more posters suggesting topics guaranteed to provoke high emotions, competing perspectives and fierce debate.

The managing director was convinced that until these underlying topics were aired and resolved, the European division of the company was far from achieving its goals.

Two days of radically transparent conversations resulted in increased clarity, accountability, collaboration and partnership across the leadership team, translating directly to the top and bottom lines.

The best way to see more courage in your organization is to model courage yourself. Let people know that you hope to be influenced by them, that you invite them to push back on your views.

  • What is the most important thing we should be talking about?
  • What are our mokitas?

Radical transparency can be scary--but it has the potential to unlock growth and success that may not be accomplished without it. It is for those who are not interested in living a guarded, careful life. It is for those who would choose a fierce conversation, a fierce relationship, a fierce life over the alternative, any day of the week. Remember that weeks quickly turn into lives.